One of my first memories of visiting Marin Preparatory School was attending the Comunidad celebration that occurs now most Mondays and Fridays. It took place several years ago. I was an invited guest and this was the first stop on a tour of the school and the number of attendees was far smaller than the present population. What struck me then and what strikes me now is how powerful Comunidad is as a model for all of us at MPS. Strong communities come together often to share common threads or experiences and through these the community stays strong and vibrant. Much like a family that celebrates holidays or birthdays, it brings us closer together.
It is a powerful message for children to see their peers, teachers, and parents participate in a shared experience. When parents show up, children feel important and valued and that school is an important place. It really is an important and key element of the social/emotional growth of children. Young children like routine, consistency and clear direction. It is from this foundational platform that they eventually evolve with the ability to take risks, attack problems in different ways, and problem solve without rigid direction. Comunidad is a safe place to share and experience many new and fascinating events.
As a school and as a community open communication is a key element. It starts with Comunidad. As we embark on this year, we will all have opportunities to share and learn from one another. Much like the student experience at Comunidad, all of us will learn and grow. For the teachers, the year will be one that allows them to know their students on many levels and communicate with them in the ways that best meet the needs of the child. Each child, as an individual, will need consistent communication that is just right for them. Teachers will communicate often with parents about progress and areas for growth.
Parents will communicate with teachers, making them aware of any special concerns they might have. At parent/teacher conferences, the opportunity exists to share and listen to one another, always with the best interest of the student in mind. Each of us will learn to ask powerful questions. Powerful questions usually require a moment to stop, think, and allow time for an adequate response. Each of us will learn to be better listeners. As Head of School, it is my responsibility to facilitate good communication between students, parents, teachers, and administration. From this perspective we will build a stronger community.
From the foundation of our Comunidad, all of us are poised for a wonderful year as the school grows to a new level and anticipates welcoming more to our community. Educators in general share one common truth that is universal. They want to see the growth and progress of their students. When that “light bulb” goes off in a child’s head; when everything “clicks,” there is great joy for both the teacher and the student. A task that may have seemed insurmountable initially, transformed into the doable achievement, marks the intersection of great teaching and great learning. None of these things happen by accident, but rather through a dedicated plan initiated by a teacher who provides a non-anxious presence to nurture and cajole; to educate. This steady-ship approach needs support from administrators and from parents.
Each new year of elementary school begins with a period of transitions and the learning of new routines. The skilled elementary teacher knows that the first few weeks of school can be an anxious time for their students and for their parents. It is a developmental reality that moving from the tried and true comfort zone from one year to the next is not always easy. The kindergarten year is filled with nurturing and it takes a remarkable person to teach kindergarten. The transition into first grade can be a bit rocky not because it is any less nurturing, but because the routines are different and the expectations elevated. It takes an equally skilled first grade teacher to develop routines that are developmentally appropriate and build concretely on the skills acquired in kindergarten. This is usually accomplished quickly within the first few weeks of school. The same is true in transitioning into second grade. From third grade on, the transitions are smoother as the child has matured and is able to settle in more easily.
Parents can play an amazingly important role in this process by being a non-anxious presence. What exactly does that mean? In my mind a non-anxious presence is someone who listens deeply, in a calm and deliberate manner. If they are listening to their child, let’s say a first grader who may be expressing some issue or concern at school, the non-anxious parent acknowledges the child’s concern, elicits as much information as possible, again in a calm and caring manner, and then redirects the child to a positive experience the child encountered at school. By doing this you have gotten some information about the issue and then can move to a more positive consideration for the child. A non-anxious parent realizes that the information they received from their 6- or 7- year-old is only part of the story. They are only 6 or 7 years old!
The next step (and it should be the immediate next step) is to speak directly to the child’s teacher about the issue. That does not mean talking to last year’s teacher. It means speaking directly to the current teacher. Last year’s teacher cannot solve the problem, is not aware of the whole story and has his or her own current students to attend to. The current teacher will be able to listen, again in a non-anxious manner, and together teacher and parent can work to understand and resolve any issues or concerns. If we approach every interaction at school from the standpoint that everything we do is in the best interest of the child, then we can only succeed. A non-anxious presence is very powerful.
Unfortunately, anxious presences are also very powerful, but in a very detrimental way. When anyone appears anxious around a child it serves as a catalyst for producing further anxiety. Elementary-school-age children, particularly in the first few years, are entitled to calm, non-anxious interactions always. If a parent or teacher is anxious, the child picks up on this immediately and quite frankly does not yet have the developmental skills to be able to decide how to cope.
The head of school, in many ways, sets the tone for the day to day workings of the school. Through the head’s non-anxious presence that supports students, teachers, and parents, the foundation for a strong learning environment is formed and nurtured. Strong communication that balances listening and speaking in an environment of trust is the safest place for children. Strong schools model this.
“Life is ten percent what happens to me and ninety percent how I react to it.” – Charles Swindoll